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Ji frowned only after he closed the door and turned his back on Jikaku’s office.

Jikaku was soft on the impudent clown. If Ji were the one in charge, Houmei would not be getting off so easy for his insolence. If Ji were in charge, Houmei would not only be frog-marched off the temple grounds, but off the entire mountain, too. Without a begging bowl.

Houmei made a mockery of the venerable competition and embarrassed the faculty at every opportunity. What really got under Ji’s skin, though, was that Houmei was completely unrepentant. He showed no remorse for his behavior, nor did he offer any excuses when given the opportunity. Instead, he’d taken the opportunity to admonish Ji,and the other candidates had rallied around him. They were supposed to be competing against each other, and here they were, staging a revolt.

Time and time again, Houmei proved that he was most definitely not sanzo material. As far as Ji was concerned, Houmei wasn’t even fit to wear ordinary monk’s robes. Jikaku, however, believed otherwise. He said that Houmei reminded him of himself when he was younger. Ji wanted to point out that Jikaku had never become a sanzo priest, either.

At least Ji had won one concession from Jikaku: Houmei would be punished, and Ji had been given the task of finding something appropriate.

*   *   *

Houmei leaned against the tower rail, the moon framing his figure. Outwardly, he oozed a new-found self-confidence. After all, he’d trounced Instructor Zouryou and managed to bring all the candidates together as a unit. His outer cool, though, masked an inner turmoil more akin to an existential crisis. The only thing keeping Houmei from bolting at the moment was that his father had never thought he would amount to much, and Houmei was damned if he was going to prove the old man right. Well, that and he liked the companionship he’d found in Genkai and Toudai. Three peas in a pod they were, only the other two didn’t fully realize it yet. Together, though, they were exponentially stronger than the sum of their parts.

Houmei wasn’t surprised when he heard Instructor Ji’s voice commanding him to get your ass down here immediately. Instead of taking his sweet time climbing down the stairs, Houmei scrambled over them two at a time.

Instructor Ji was furious with him -- apoplectic, even. His usually clear complexion was red and blotchy, and Houmei actually bit the tip of his tongue before he could make a remark about anger did not suit the other monk. Houmei was already on instructor Ji’s shit list, and he didn’t want to press his fortune any further.

Ji turned on his heel without another word to him. Houmei fell in behind the instructor and couldn’t help mimicking his ramrod-straight posture and clenching fists as he strode across the courtyard toward the temple. He heard Ganpuku and Jouan snickering behind him.

Ji didn’t bother hiding his anger and it only grew exponentially when he heard some of the other candidates laughing. He glanced to one side and saw Houmei’s shadow parallel to his. His eyes narrowed and he whirled, catching Houmei in mid-stride.

“I see what you’re doing,” he seethed. “Is there nothing you take seriously?”

Houmei smiled sheepishly and shrugged. There were plenty of things he took seriously, but the absurdity of this competition was surely at the bottom of that, or some other, list.

Ji returned Houmei’s smile with a smug one of his own, Soon enough, he’d wipe that grin off Houmei’s face. He stayed silent until they were at Jikaku’s office.

“Be respectful,” he hissed as he knocked on the door.

 

Houmei didn’t need to be told that; if there was anyone he had any modicum of respect for, it was Jikaku. Even if he was more often than not a sadistic ogre.

 

The older monk called out, “Come in, Instructor Ji!”

 

*    *    *

 

Jikaku wasn’t angry with Houmei, but he was going to make a show of it -- not for Ji, but because Houmei needed to be nudged in the right direction. He needed a special test, one in which he would only be able to rely on himself. A task with no support and no audience, and Ji had devised one that fit the bill perfectly. And if he was honest, Jikaku could allow that maybe just a little part of Houmei’s challenge was to benefit Ji’s wounded ego.

Jikaku looked sternly at the young monk, his bushy eyebrows drawn together.

“Your insubordination has cost this competition dearly.”

“That bastard Zouryou was drowning--”

Ji shoved Houmei, forcing him to his knees.

“Enough of your impertinence!” Ji roared, his fingers digging into Houmei’s shoulders.

“Owwww!” Houmei complained, but he didn’t fight back. Ji was foolish, though, if he thought he could keep Houmei in place against his will.

“Stop whining! You’ve brought this on yourself!” Jikaku warned.

Houmei hadn’t expected Jikaku to side with him. Still, a small part of him had held out hope that Jikaku would understand why he had intervened on Genkai’s behalf.

“This is a competition, not a team-building exercise,” Jikaku continued. “How will anyone rise to the top if you’re all working together?”

“I don’t know,” Houmei said through gritted teeth. “And maybe I just don’t care anymore.”

Ji, who had written copious notes on each candidate, realized Houmei wasn’t joking.  Maybe they’d finally be getting rid of the troublemaker. He didn’t dare allow himself that wish.

“Is that so?” Jikaku’s voice was full of mockery. “Then this next challenge will give you some time to think about your commitment to this program.”

“What challenge is that?” Houmei asked flatly.

“You’re to climb to the top of the south peak of Mount Hua Shan.” Ji’s voice was gleeful.

“But I’m afraid of heights!” Houmei protested.

Jikaku snorted. “Didn’t Ji just call you down from the watchtower?”

“And it’s far away.” Houmei sniffed.

“You can walk there in three days if you don’t dawdle,” Jikaku replied.

“What if I refuse? What if I quit? I’m beginning to think this ‘becoming a sanzo’ thing just isn’t for me.”

“It’s too late for that,” Jikaku said.

“If you don’t accept this challenge, then you’ll need to choose someone to take your place.” Ji smiled triumphantly over Houmei’s shoulder.

“That’s not fair!”

“No one questioned fairness when you all stood against my instructor,” Jikaku said, pointedly.

“I’m sure Toudai or Genkai would be happy to take your place,” Ji needled.

Houmei would never let that happen. Nor could he imagine sending any of the others as a champion; he wasn’t a coward, and despite his reputation, he wasn’t lazy, either. He didn’t like the sound of this at all. It sounded a little too easy, which always meant something else altogether.

But he could see was no easy way out of it. He’d run their damned errand, and when he was done, he would be able to make a clean break of it. “Fine, I’ll do it.”

Ji’s grip relaxed.

“And one more thing, bring me back a souvenir,” Jikaku instructed.

“What kind of souvenir?”

Jikaku shrugged. “You’ll know it when you see it.” He shook a cigarette from the pack that resided on his desk, indicating that the audience was over.

*    *    *

The others were shocked when Houmei returned to the barracks with the news.

“I thought for sure the idiot was done for!” Gichou exclaimed.

“Houmei, you need to be careful,” Genkai warned.

“What’s the catch?” Toudai asked. He was just as sure as Houmei that this punishment wasn’t so straightforward.

Houmei put on a brave face. “Relax! I’ll be back in a week with a great story to tell, that is, if you can keep yourselves alive!” He winked at the group as he left.

*    *    *

Houmei clung to the precipitous side of the mountain like a decrepit spider. His knees shook violently which, in turn, shook the narrow planks underneath his feet. His arms ached and his hands burned from clutching the heavy chain that was bolted into the steep slope -- the only safeguard there was to prevent him from pitching into the abyss below. He pressed his cheek against the cool rock and pretended not to think about the several thousand-meter drop underneath his ledge, currently concealed by the cloudwall he had just climbed through.

This was lunacy. Whatever monk had managed to climb Hou Shan some seven hundred years ago was an idiot, Houmei decided. Or a masochist. Houmei had never thought of himself as either, but as he inched his way along, he was entertaining some serious doubts about his sanity. What was he doing this for? To bring back some tchotchke for priest Jikaku? The old man should try climbing up Hou Shan himself; maybe he’d be less of a sadist then.

Toudai would probably laugh if he could see him on this ridiculous path. Houmei heard his friend’s deep belly-laugh and imagined it echoing across the expanse and bouncing off the multitude of peaks. That thought comforted Houmei briefly. But all too soon his stomach lurched queasily.

The three narrow planks that formed the path had abruptly ended.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Houmei said to the ether. The path in the form of more planks reappeared several meters in front of him, but to get to it, he had to negotiate rough-hewn steps carved directly into the granite wall. At least the chain continued on, unbroken. He took a deep breath and forged ahead. It was only after he was safely across that Houmei was able to breathe again. When the path ended for a second time, it was at the base of a ladder formed out of pitons that had been hammered into a vertical crevice. Houmei hoisted himself upward, dreaming of the sleep that awaited him at the temple he presumed crowned the peak. Exhausted, he climbed it at a snail’s pace; with each step, every muscle ached and screamed in complaint.

He reached the top of the ladder and clambered up onto the rock. The view was breathtaking, but Houmei was more interested in finding some tea or sake. It took him several seconds to realize that there was no temple, only a sign that read: Welcome to the Hermit’s Cave.

“I climbed all the way up here for a cave?” Houmei asked incredulously. Apparently Jikaku’s sadism knew no bounds. He pictured the craggy monk having a good laugh with Instructor Ji. Dejected, Houmei headed for the cave’s entrance; the sun was setting, and there was no way he was going back the way he'd come, not at night. It would be miserable, cold, hungry night. He hadn’t eaten for several hours, nor had he brought more than a canteen of water.

On cue, his stomach growled.

The cave was pitch-black and Houmei’s nose crinkled from the musty smell. He felt around and found a flat ledge carved into the wall with a straw mattress atop it. Fortunately, there was a wool blanket folded at the foot. Houmei wrapped it around himself and curled up. Almost instantly, despite his hunger and aching muscles, he fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

 

*    *    *

Houmei awoke in electric-blue pre-dawn light. He stretched his limbs, which weren’t feeling so bad anymore, then stepped out of the cave to take a piss. The sun was just peeking over the curve of the earth and the summit was bathed in warm orange light. Houmei could appreciate the view now, despite the gnawing in his belly. He fasted for much longer periods than this, albeit not while climbing a mountain.

“It’s a beautiful view, isn’t it, Houmei?”

Houmei spun around. Standing behind him was a huge creature with fur as white as snow.

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people, it’s rude, you know!”

The beast chuckled. “You’re a prickly one.”

He -- Houmei surmised from his voice -- had a leonine head, complete with a full white mane. Upon closer inspection, Houmei could make out a faint tiger-stripe pattern on his flanks.

“How do you know my name?”

“I am Bai Ze, I know all.”

Houmei stiffened at that, and then he laughed at the sheer preposterousness of his situation. He’d been avoiding Genkai’s prescient touch for weeks, only to be brought face-to-face with a fortune-teller.

“And disrespectful, as well. I’m much more than a fortune-teller!” Bai Ze boomed. “I know the fate of all mankind.”

“It must weigh on you greatly, then,” Houmei said sweetly.

“Why are you afraid of your future, Houmei? Can’t you see how your behavior pains Genkai?”

Houmei flinched. “I just don’t see the point in knowing the details; it’s like reading the last page of a novel first. Besides, I already know how the story ends. We all die,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“It’s what happens between birth and death that is most interesting.”

“And it’s more interesting if you don’t know the plot,” Houmei said stubbornly.

“Then why did you make this pilgrimage?” Bai Ze padded closer, fixing with a baleful amber gaze. His shoulder came up to Houmei’s chest and his paws were huge -- the size of Houmei’s hands when his fingers were spread apart.

“I didn’t have a choice!”

“That’s what you like to tell yourself, but you always have a choice.”

“Well, it wasn’t a very good one,” Houmei protested.

Bai Ze paced back and forth in front of Houmei with catlike grace. He stopped and raised his head. “You will become a sanzo priest.”

“Not if Instructor Ji can help it.”

“You’re far too powerful for it to be otherwise. He knows it. But more importantly, wise Jikaku knows it.”

“What if I decide that I don’t want it anymore?”

“But you do.”

Houmei shrugged. “I could take it or leave it.”

“What do you imagine your life would be like if you were to quit now?”

“A lot less painful!”

“Let me share something with you.”

Houmei’s body tensed and he felt cold. “I’d rather not, if I have a choice.”

Bai Ze’s face turned into a grimace, and Houmei supposed it was in actuality, a smile. He had really big teeth. And they looked sharp.

“In this case, you don’t. You know I only appear to those who are worthy,” he began. “You have an important role to play before you die, Koumyou Sanzo.”

A shiver wracked Houmei’s body at the sound of the title. And he knew in that moment, with an unshakable certainty, that he would become sanzo. Despite all his misgivings and the obstacles -- both his and the competition’s -- that stood in his way, the clarity of Bai Ze’s statement struck Houmei like an arrow between his eyes. He stood up straighter.

“There is a creature whose powers are equal to that of all the heavens: a great sage. He is imprisoned now, on another mountaintop, waiting to be released.”

“Does this mean another pilgrimage for me?”

“No, not this one. He can only be released by the boy who can hear his voice -- your son.”

“But, I’m not planning on having any children.”

Bai Ze shook his massive head slowly. “Be that as it may, there is someone that you will release. After you are elevated, you will journey west to right another wrong that was committed 500 years ago--”

“What wrong?” Houmei asked, finally becoming intrigued.

“That I can’t tell you.”

“Are you serious?” Houmei grumbled. “How will I know whom to set free?”

“Just trust your intuition.”

Houmei crossed his arms over his chest. “For someone who ‘knows all,’ you’re not very helpful, are you?”

“I’ve only told you as much as you’ve wanted me to.”

Houmei thought about that. “Fair enough,” he said finally.

Just then he heard voices from below. Houmei peered over the edge and saw more pilgrims, far, far below.

Bai Ze heard them, too. His great head cocked to one side and an ear twitched.

“I must go now.”

“Wait!” Houmei said, suddenly remembering something. “You wouldn’t happen to have a souvenir, would you? A claw, or a fang, maybe?”

Bai Ze snarled at him.

“I didn’t think so.”

Houmei looked around once more to see if he could find something suitable for Jikaku. When he glanced up, he was alone once more. He sighed.

“Well, that could have gone a lot worse,” he said, heading toward the makeshift ladder. He wanted to be past the narrow wood-plank pathway before the other pilgrims reached it. He looked around once more, and his eyes landed on a dazzling white stone, as smooth as an egg.

“That’ll do nicely,” he said. Jikaku could use a paperweight to help tame the mountains of official documents that littered his desk. He picked it up and secreted it securely inside his robes before he began his descent.

~fin~